On November 18, 2021, US President Joe Biden said Washington is considering a diplomatic boycott of the February 4-20, 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, the possibility of a boycott is linked to concerns about egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang.
Under the boycott, US. athletes will compete in the Games, but a delegation of government officials will not attend the sporting event.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused the Biden Administration of violating the Olympic spirit. He rejected US accusations of genocide, forced labor, and other human rights violations against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. The Global Times and People’s Daily also noted that “anti-Chinese forces are joining together to create problems for China.” Still, the Olympics “will be not only a comprehensive stress test for China’s ability to respond to various crises but also a catalyst for the growth of China’s mentality as a major power.”
Such a collision once again highlighted the place of South Korea in the confrontation between the USA and China. English-language press in South Korea noted that China needs to pay more attention to the growing calls of the international community to stop widespread human rights violations. On the other hand, it is pointed out that it would be better for Biden and Xi to reach a compromise to prevent the Beijing Olympics from becoming a political hot spot. A repeat of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the United States boycotted because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet Union refused to send its delegation to the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Other contributions noted that “the Moon Administration needs to reconsider the country’s longstanding policy of relying on the USA for security and depending on China for economic growth.”
On November 26, 2021, an official of the ROK Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity that South Korea had not received any requests from the United States for consultation on a possible diplomatic boycott of the Beijing games (https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20211126007000325?section=news) But the official reiterated Seoul’s hope the Beijing Olympics will become a “turning point” to improve inter-Korean relations.
On December 7, the South Korean government reaffirmed its support in principle for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. However, Seoul hasn’t specified whether it plans to send a government delegation to the games.
At the same time, Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Seoul and Beijing “support each other in hosting the Olympic Games, demonstrating the friendly cooperative relationship between our two countries and the way of life of the great Olympic family (https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2021/12/202_320194.html).” As for other countries’ boycotts, Wang noted that “no one will care whether they come or not” because they “will not affect the Olympic Games, which Beijing will successfully hold.”
The first Summit for Democracy, led by US President Joe Biden, started on December 9 with the participation of leaders and senior officials from 110 countries. Fighting authoritarianism and corruption and defending human rights were on the agenda. In his opening remarks, the head of the White House criticized “outside pressures from autocrats who seek to export their influence and reinforce their repressive policies and practices.” This event’s anti-Chinese and anti-Russian orientation can be seen with the naked eye.
Moon Jae-in, of course, gave a heartfelt speech: The ROK will contribute to efforts to promote democracy in Asia, building on its experience of economic development and democratic state-building (https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20211209010151315?section=news).
During a December 13 visit to Australia, Moon Jae-in confirmed that the ROK was not considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games in Beijing. The South Korean leader stressed that neither the United States nor any other country had asked Seoul to join the boycott. In addition, Moon noted that his visit to Australia had nothing to do with Washington’s stance on Beijing. The alliance with the United States is the backbone of South Korea’s diplomacy and national security, but economically the relationship with China is also significant.
On December 15, Park Soo-hyun, senior presidential secretary for public communication, noted that the ROK owed a special interest in the Beijing Winter Olympics as the host country of the previous Games. Park added that the decision on President Moon Jae-in’s participation in the opening ceremony of the Games would be made later, taking into account various factors strictly in the national interest. He expressed hope that Washington would understand Seoul’s position as the previous host country.
One gets the impression that Seoul has gone against Washington, but as for the author, there are two reasons for this outright confrontation on this issue.
First, Seoul was reportedly actively counting on a breakthrough to revitalize the peace process in Korea after the Beijing Olympics, similar to the one after the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Kim Jong-un might come to such a landmark event, and the leaders of the North and the South would hold another summit or even solemnly declare the end of the Korean War (1950-53) on the margins of the Olympics.
However, if such a summit were to happen, it would be as useful as the one in 2007, when Roh Moo-hyun met with Kim Jong-il also nearly at the very end of his presidential term. And although there were many interesting and worthy ideas among the summit’s results, it was clear to experts that it would be the next president who would implement these decisions. But Moo-hyun hoped that such a pathetic event would boost his camp’s chances of winning the presidential election. Still, it did not increase the Democrats’ rating, and conservative Lee Myung-bak, who came to power, scrapped the agreements made at the summit, first chance he got.
The second reason is that less than three months before the end of his term, Moon Jae-in is a lame duck who can afford demonstrative actions for which there is no point in punishing him anymore. But he needs to be remembered as the man who opposed the American course because Moon has to think about how to ensure a retirement in dignity at the end of his presidential term.
Due to his own actions, being an ex-president in Korea is very dangerous. The successors will find a way to put him away, and Moon, like a good Game of Thrones master, is not going to jump off a cliff like Roh Moo-hyun or go to jail like Park Geun-hye or Lee Myung-bak. So points are being scored so that if the Left comes to power, it would be bad manners to jail such a Democrat, and if the Right comes to power, their grounds for arrest and conviction could be passed off as political revenge.
Of course, the conservative opposition pounced on the president. This view is well reflected in an article in Joongang Ilbo, one of the leading conservative newspapers (https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20211208000600320?section=news). Of course, a diplomatic boycott of the Games is a tough decision, but it will still not help bring the North Korean leader to the negotiating table. “The Moon administration must wake up from its pipe dream that it can solve Korean Peninsular issues through a diplomatic stunt in Beijing.” Moon’s statement that his government was not considering a diplomatic boycott of the games was called reckless by the newspaper and unexpectedly cited the example of Japan, where no leader had clarified Tokyo’s position on a boycott. Still, news reports reported that the government had decided to send to Beijing the member of parliament who headed the Organizing Committee for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. This allowed them to agree to the boycott and save face formally.
The more moderate Korea Times reminds us that China sent a high-ranking special envoy to Pyeongchang during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Therefore “the government should make a wise and balanced decision on the Olympics issue based on the principle of promoting mutual benefits and protecting our national interest to the full. (https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2021/12/202_320194.html).” It is noted that Seoul is finding it challenging to continue balancing between the United States, its security ally, and China, its largest trading partner. The Republic of Korea can neither sacrifice its security alliance with the United States for the sake of its economic partnership with China nor compromise its economic interests for the sake of its security. But the Biden administration has put human rights at the center of its foreign policy to increase pressure on Beijing, pedaling the themes of human rights violations in Xinjiang, the suppression of freedom in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In such a situation, “Moon should also take a realistic and practical approach to his push to formally declare an end to the Korean War to help improve inter-Korean ties and resume the stalled denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.” For example, “Following earlier precedents, South Korea could send Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Hwang Hee as the country’s representative to the Games, but this will be subject to change depending on Moon’s decision.”
But, in the author’s opinion, all such statements are part of the rituals, after which Seoul will habitually “sit in the American chair,” as it has done before. It’s worth reiterating how, at the beginning of the trade war with Japan, the ROK threateningly promised to tear up the GSOMIA agreement but pulled back at the last moment. It’s worth reiterating how the Republic of Korea withdrew its armed forces from the anti-Iranian coalition. Then the scope of the South Korean contingent, which was fighting Somali pirates, suddenly expanded, and it de facto ended up in the same block as US ships. It’s worth reiterating that Moon has met with more American presidents than any conservative president. It’s worth reiterating that the “democracy summit” where Moon emphasized his country’s commitment to the ideals of the agenda that the Biden administration presents as “human values.”
As the author has already pointed out (https://journal-neo.su/ru/2020/03/06/gordaya-i-nezavisimaya-politika-yuzhnoj-korei/), the same pattern is everywhere. There is a kind of challenge, the consequences of which do not look pleasant for Korean politics or economics. President Moon and his entourage make several high-profile statements on the matter, but in the end, Seoul does everything it is asked to do. Still, the fact that “the chair was not sat on straight but sideways” is positioned as an important foreign policy victory and a demonstration of pride and independence.
Therefore, we cannot rule out a relatively simple development of events: The US is increasingly accusing China of human rights violations, often citing “heartbreaking facts and evidence,” under the pressure of Seoul changing its position or finding force majeure excuses not to go. A new strain of coronavirus or some domestic political problems would be enough to justify it.
Whether the author was correct or not, we’ll see soon.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”